Suriname President Desi Bouterse (270858)
Credit: Contributed

Former Surinamese military strongman and ex-President Desi Bouterse’s decades old effort to stay out of jail for mass murder faces another major hurdle as a local court is set to hear his appeal against a jail sentence in what is being billed as his final opportunity to remain free.

Bouterse, 76, and his attorneys are due in the local appeals court at the end of this month to fight a 20-year jail sentence another court had imposed on him back in 2019, for the December 1982 murders of 15 alleged opponents of his military government.

More than two years before the executions of four journalists, clergymen, academics and labor leaders, the former army sergeant and a large group of comrades had moved against the elected government, kicking them out for a variety of reasons including a demand by soldiers to be represented by a labor union.

And as opposition to military rule picked up steam with the help of The Netherlands—Suriname’s former colonial power—the U.S., and France, the combination of military and friendly civilian rulers felt the stress to hold on to power as strikes and protest actions frustrated authorities.

By early December 1982, soldiers had thought it best to round up the 15 and cruelly execute them one by one at a colonial era Dutch fort that is, ironically, right next door to the presidential secretariat. The allegation was that they were collaborating with the west to reverse the coup. Bouterse, who was later twice elected to five year terms as a civilian president, has always accepted collective responsibility for the murders but has denied ever giving orders for soldiers to do so.

Now, in less than three weeks, the frail and ailing former sergeant-turned-colonel-then-elected-president faces what is widely regarded as his final opportunity to remain free as if he loses this appeal judges can order him to jail, though there are fears of unrest if the judges do so.

His National Democratic Party dropped 10 seats to 16 in the 2020 general elections and is now in opposition, giving the courts a freer hand to operate without any perceived government pressure.
The trial will actually start about a year after he filed the appeal. Two civilians and one judge with military experience will sit on the panel to determine once and for all the former military strongman’s fate, says Star News online newspaper. This is in keeping with the military criminal justice act.

The first efforts to criminally charge Bouterse and the others for the mass murders date back more than 20 years. Relatives and other survivors keep the issue alive annually with ceremonies at a monument, complete with speeches and other forms of tributes. In all, authorities had charged 25 people including Bouterse. Some have been freed, others have died.
To ensure he remained free, parliament had back in 2012 controversially passed a law giving amnesty to those accused but an appeals panel had ruled that the trial could still have gone ahead as it has, resulting in the 20-year sentence. The constitutional court had also nullified the amnesty law.

Still few in Suriname believe that he will ever serve a day in prison as authorities have persistently said they fear civil unrest from this loyal brigade of National Democratic Party members, former soldiers and other sympathizers.

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